The Right to Kill

Does Dzhokhar Tsarnaev deserve to die?  Does the United States have the right to kill him?

We will need to answer both questions for ourselves soon enough, so we’d better start thinking about them now.

Tsarnaev, of course, is the surviving of the two alleged perpetrators of last April’s Boston Marathon bombing.  He was captured at the end of a massive daylong manhunt during which his elder brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a firefight with police.

Dzhokhar has remained in federal custody ever since, as the authorities have prepared their case for trial.  On January 30, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that, should Tsarnaev be found guilty, the United States would seek the death penalty.

In effect, my two opening questions have already been answered, so far as the federal government is concerned.  The United States has explicitly allowed for capital punishment to be carried out in federal cases since 1988, during which time three people have been executed, the most famous being Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, who was lethally injected in 2001.  No one has been put to death at the federal level since 2003, although there are presently 61 candidates on death row.

As for whether the actions of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev merit an addition of one to this crew:  Well, the attorney general seems to think so.

But the above only encompasses the legal component of my queries.  The moral component, which cannot be so easily quantified, remains unresolved.

In America, the debate about capital punishment reaches far and wide.  In recent years, the arguments on both sides have tended to hinge less on ethical considerations and more on practicalities.  For instance, an increasing proportion of death penalty opponents have cited the prospect of executing an innocent person as the primary rationale for their view, while those in favor claim that the practice functions as a deterrent against future potential criminals.

But we should never abandon the philosophical realm—the one that frames issues in terms of right and wrong—because while factors like DNA testing and studies on sociological cause-and-effect continue to evolve, morality remains constant.

To be sure, plenty of people still do view the death penalty question in precisely those terms.  In a 2003 Gallup survey that asked opponents of capital punishment to explain their view, a full 46 percent responded, “It is wrong to take a life.”  (The second most popular answer, “A person might be wrongly convicted,” was offered by only 25 percent.)

The approach at which such a prospective hints—and one which I would suggest we more commonly adopt—is to view capital punishment in terms of that famous idea, “The right to life.”

Up until now, this concept has been all but exclusively associated with the anti-abortion movement in America, which contends that human life begins at conception and, by extension, that terminating a pregnancy is a morally impermissible act.  That, in effect, once we establish that a particular entity is alive, no one has any right to bring that life to an end.  Period, full stop.

Well, then:  If this principle is to apply to a fetus, why should it not apply to a death row inmate?

After all, if the term “right” is to mean anything, would it not be, “something that may not be infringed under any circumstances”?  Even if the circumstance in question is to have committed first degree murder?

If the right to life is truly “inalienable,” as Thomas Jefferson famously asserted that it was, who are we to say that violating a particular law would suddenly make it alienable?

Was George Carlin not onto something when he stipulated, “Rights aren’t rights if someone can take them away—they’re privileges”?

One is not required to view the right to life is such absolute terms—the Constitution and Supreme Court certainly don’t—but once and if one does, then all other factors in the death penalty debate are washed away.  If every person in the United States is entitled to live, period, then my questions about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev answer themselves.

In any case, and no matter what you believe, let us all pay closer attention to the words we use when we discuss such essential issues in the public square, in order to be sure that we really mean what we say.  People’s lives may hang in the balance.

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